Red Line? Obama Remains Unconvinced Syria’s Assad Ordered Chemical Attack

US President Barack Obama listens during a press conference in the White House Briefing Room on Tuesday. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Did Syrian President Bashar al-Assad order his forces to use chemical weapons? U.S. President Barack Obama doesn’t know. And until he’s sure, it’s unlikely American forces will intervene in that nation’s civil war.

When it comes to chemical weapons, Obama told reporters during a White House briefing, that because those arms can kill so many people, “we don’t want that genie out of the bottle.”

Obama is feeling pressure from Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill after the White House last week informed lawmakers that U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded chemical weapons were used in Syria’s civil war. Obama months ago said that would constitute a “red line,” that if crossed by Assad, would bring U.S. intervention.

But instead of acting last week, Obama asked the United Nations to verify the intel assessment. The White House — including the commander in chief — appears unsure whether Assad ordered the alleged chemical attack.

“We don’t know how they were used, when they were used, or who used them,” Obama told reporters. “We don’t have a chain of custody.”

The president said he is holding off on making a decision about Washington’s next step in Syria because “I’ve got to have the facts.”

The Iraq war is still front-and-center in many Democrats minds, including Obama, who as a candidate in 2007 and 2008 campaigned hard against what he called George W. Bush’s strategic blunder. Candidate Obama often cited the failure of U.S. forces to find any Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Last Thursday, a senior White House official subtly said Washington cannot again rush to war in the Middle East because of initial intelligence assessments about the possibility of WMDs.

“I would say that given our own history with intelligence assessments, including intelligence assessments related to weapons of mass destruction, it’s very important that we are able to establish this with certainty and that we are able to present information that is airtight in a public and credible fashion to underpin all of our decision-making,” the official told reporters on a conference call. “That is I think the threshold that is demanded given how serious this issue is.”

Obama echoed his aide a few days later.

“Rushing to a judgement” about the chemical weapons could undermine the White House’s ability to form a regional and/or international coalition it would prefer if an intervention is eventually needed, Obama said on Tuesday.

“It’s important for us to do this in a prudent way” by “establishing, with some certainty, what happened in Syria and what is happening in Syria,” the president said. U.S. officials are working with Syria’s neighbors “to establish a timeline of facts,” he added.

Notably, after striking a cautious tone, Obama concluded his answer to a reporter’s question on Syria by swinging to the hawkish end of the spectrum.

If the U.N. or other probes verifies the intel assessment and finds Assad ordered the chemical attack, that “could be a game changer” that would lead him to “re-think our options,” Obama said.

The commander in chief, possibly aiming to reach Assad himself, told reporters that last year he requested the Defense Department and U.S. intelligence agencies to prepare “a spectrum of options” for a Syria intervention.

“Obviously,” he said, “there are options available to me that are on the shelf.”

Yet, a growing number of lawmakers, pundits and experts in Washington are questioning whether Obama’s messages to Assad are beginning to ring a bit hollow.

“You cannot say, ‘This is the red line,’ and then not enforce it,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told Defense News in late March. “I believe the administration is looking at all options. I do not believe that we can countenance any use of chemical weapons.”

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett